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23:04 Wed 23 Apr 2014

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Hermeneutical ‘Humility’

One of the reasons I talk about hermeneutics so much, both here and elsewhere, is that it undergirds almost everything else. If we don't know how God's word exercises authority over us, and how to take what it says and apply it today, then we end up fudging the whole kit and caboodle. In the old days, people used to come right out and say that they didn't submit to the Bible. Thomas Jefferson had the good manners to cut out all of the bits that he didn't believe. But these days, the opposition to the authority of Christ is more creative. "Ah, but there's lots of ways of interpreting the Bible", for all its apparent innocence (and self-evident accuracy), is the contemporary equivalent of "Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?"

Figuring out whether you’re interpreting the Bible properly, of course, is of immense importance. There are texts which we find genuinely confusing, the meanings of which have been disputed for centuries by those who love God and his word. But you know what? There aren’t that many. If you compare the sermons of Chrysostom, Luther, Calvin, Wesley and your favourite preacher today, you will be struck by the extraordinary agreement between them on the meanings of almost all biblical texts, rather than by their disagreements. If you read a cross-section of ten commentaries on a controversial New Testament book - say, on 1 Corinthians, you read Barrett, Conzelmann, Fee, Witherington, Schrage, Thiselton, Garland, Wright, Fitzmyer, and Ciampa & Rosner - you will encounter remarkable consensus on what specific texts and passages mean, and where there is disagreement, it will almost always be of such a minor nature that the essential meaning of the passage is largely unaffected. When we consider experts like this from widely different backgrounds (Roman Catholic, Calvinist, Wesleyan, Anglican, Lutheran, Neo-liberal), we find people disagreeing about the rhetorical form of the text, possible ancient parallels and various grammatical and syntactical questions - but we don’t find anyone saying that Paul thinks division in the church is good, that sexual immorality is fine, that participating in idol feasts is no problem, or that the resurrection won’t happen. Such scholars may disagree with Paul, but they don’t disagree that much over what he thought was sinful and what wasn’t.

And it’s usually the bits about what is sinful, and what is not, that lead people to play the “ah, but that’s just your interpretation” card, which turns out to be a joker in more ways than one. That’s the oddity of the discussion: the texts over which people are most likely to drop the I-bomb (these days, they’re often the texts about sexuality) are the ones over which there is the least disagreement amongst scholars, and amongst teachers throughout the ages. If you read Chrysostom, Calvin, Wesley, Henry, Sanday and Headlam, Kasemann, Michel, Cranfield, Dunn, Moo, Fitzmyer and Jewett, or even a few of them, you’ll see that the meaning of Romans 11:26-27 is genuinely disputed. Romans 1:26-27, not so much. That makes me suspicious that although the discussion is masquerading as a debate about the meanings of texts, it’s actually about something else.

Doug Wilson puts it this way:

When the serpent denied the meaning that God attached to His words (“hath God said?”), he was not leaving the words of the prohibition standing there as naked non-signifiers. No, denial of original intent is always an attempt to supply the intent of another (Gen. 3:5). This is (yet another) inescapable concept. It is not whether, but which. It is not whether words will be governed in accordance with the intent behind them, but rather whose intent it will be ... If I were to presuppose such words floating out there in the middle of the air, it would not because they did not need intention, but rather because it was my serpentine purpose to give them my intention. In the fogworld of the serpent, words reveal: themselves! And, having set up the blank screen of intentionless words, we trundle out the projector we had waiting in the wings, so that we project up there whatever we want, which usually winds up being porn of some kind.

And so it does.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me say again: as a statement, “ah, but there’s lots of interpretations of the Bible” is quite true. That’s why we need to work hard to understand what the original authors intended; it’s why research matters; it’s why theology matters; it’s why I do what I do. But if that card gets played with unrepresentative frequency when people start talking about what we do with our genitals, then we may be excused for wondering whether something else is going on. It often is.

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    By Mike Tisdell on 21/05/2013 at 19:10

    When one honestly attempts to understand the intent of the original author, it often does not eliminate differences of opinion about how a passage should be interpreted but it almost always makes crystal clear where boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate interpretations of Scripture exist. Within those boundaries, there is always room for healthy debate but outside of those boundaries is a place we should all fear to tread.

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